Earl Almeida – University of Western Ontario
It was just over 13 years ago that I heard about Southwestern Advantage for the first time. I started my university career in the fall of 1998, moving away from home in Toronto to attend the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario. The business school at Western had a great reputation and shared cases with Harvard, and since I’ve always wanted to be in business, I figured Western was the place to be. I entered university with very little in terms of work experience. I had done a lot of extracurricular activities both in and out of school. I was involved in numerous teams, events and even the business club, DECA, where I served as the President of the Ontario organization during my last year of high school. But while I had been involved in many activities and had developed my leadership skills, the one thing I lacked tremendously when starting university was good work experience.
My dad never encouraged me to work as a teenager as he, like many parents of Asian descent, wanted me to focus on my schooling. Even so, during my high school career, I had 4 different jobs, though none of them lasted very long. I first started selling newspaper subscriptions door-to-door on straight commission. I only did this a few times and was so bad I just got some charity money from the boss for coming out to try. I then started selling knives, during the summer before my final year of high school. This was a sales position that required me to call on family and friends and make presentations and then ask for referrals to their friends. I was told in training that 1 of 2 families would make a purchase; however, in the 20 presentations I made, I only made 3 sales, and I wasn’t good at collecting referrals. In the spring, I took a position as a telemarketer selling newspaper subscriptions to the same paper for which I had previously gone door-to-door. The job worked well for my active schedule as it was just 4 hours a week and offered an hourly rate plus commission. But in the 5 months I worked there, only once did I sell enough to earn the commission. My final job before university came right before moving away to school. I had traveled with my dad for half the summer so all I could find was a dish washing position at a restaurant for the last week of my summer break. The job sucked and the 50 hours I worked in the one week I was there for was enough to let me know that I never wanted to work in such an environment again.
So when January 1999 came, and the summer was just a few months away, I started thinking about what I was going to do for the summer. I had made the decision earlier to get my resume in order and mass mailed to employers by the end of January. However, my academic success and discipline from high school hadn’t followed me to university and by the time February had arrived I had yet to get my resume organized.
So I was blessed in early February, to get a call in my dorm from a lady named Sue. She told me about the Southwestern Advantage Internship where I could make $8,000 in the summer and get good experience. I don’t remember how the call went but the prospect of the money was enough to spark my interest.
I attended the information session the next day and heard a lot of things that appealed to me. The position involved running a business, having some independence, and relocating across the country to Vancouver, a place I had never been to. I left the information meeting excited about the opportunity that it could provide me.
That night I told my residence advisor about it. He was a few years older than me and also an aspiring business student, but he didn’t think it was going to be a good experience. His initial opinion led me into a small downward spiral of somewhat negative thoughts. Over the course of the evening, I started thinking about what I was going to be missing being away from home for the summer. I remembered my lack of success at my three previous sales positions and started asking myself why I kept encountering sales roles and whether I could really do well with Southwestern Advantage. My dad wasn’t thrilled with the idea of Southwestern either. I think he mostly didn’t want me leaving home, but he was also a little skeptical about things, feeling it might be a scam and I wouldn’t make any money.
I went back the next day to meet with Sue and I wasn’t so sure any more that Southwestern was the thing for me that summer. I remember telling her that maybe I needed a summer at home first after being away for school and that the next summer would be better. Sue was patient with me; she answered my questions and discussed my concerns, which brought me a lot of comfort. She was honest and told me the job would be hard. She shared how we would make 30 presentations a day but would average just 1 sale. That gave me the most confidence because I knew I wasn’t great at sales, but I felt the books were good enough that I could find at least 1 customer.
Looking back it on now, I realize that I was just a little scared of the unknown, the things I felt I “needed” to do in the summer by being home were also things I could just as easily do during the school year (ie. playing sports, spending time with friends, etc.) and it was no reason to pass up on the opportunity I had with Southwestern.
I was fortunate to meet Dan Moore, then Southwestern’s VP of Marketing (now the President), the next day on campus. His visit just happened to occur during the time I was being interviewed. I don’t remember everything he said but one thing has stuck with me for 13 years. He compared a regular job to Southwestern in 3 categories: financial, time and boss. He talked about how at a regular job you get paid ‘x’ dollars an hour and at Southwestern your income has no limit. Then he compared how at a regular job you would work 40 hours a week and at Southwestern you’d work 75 or more. But what stuck with me the most was when he talked about how at a regular job you’d work for someone else and at Southwestern you’d work for yourself. He closed off with a question that I’ll never forget, “If you’re not willing to take on a challenge in your late teens, early twenties, when there is little to lose, are you going to be any more prepared to take on challenges in yours thirties and forties when there is even more at risk?” That part really stuck with me because I had already experienced family members who were not thrilled with their job or their bosses, but were reluctant to move as they had families to support or were afraid of the risk involved with change. It was at that time that I decided Southwestern was where I needed to be and I was thrilled to be officially selected a few days later.
For me, Southwestern was like a wall, or a challenge to tackle, on the road to business success. I knew it was going to be hard, but I also knew that once I got over that wall, by finishing the summer, my path to success in business would be a little easier. I made the decision and the commitment to myself to finish the summer, no matter what.
I was no top sales person my first summer: I worked hard, no less than 82 hours a week, but selling books didn’t come easily for me. I had tough days, both physically and mentally, and often debated with myself whether I should quit and go home. The only thing that kept me going every day was the commitment I made to myself when I was first selected to finish the summer, no matter what. In the end, I made over $8,000 that summer and when I showed my dad my savings check for almost $5,000 and said I was going to return for another summer, he had nothing to say against it.
Before my second summer, I had a chance to attend the Great Recruiters Seminar in Nashville. Being surrounded by several hundred motivated university students, I realized that I was in the right place. I made the decision at that point, 4 months before my second summer, that I would continue with Southwestern, no matter what, for the rest of my school career.
The good news is that I did get better. My sales doubled in my second year, to about $16,000 and then to $24,000 in my third summer. I was able to pay for all of my tuition, books and lodging expenses for my last few years of school, graduated without any debt and decided to work with Southwestern in a sales manager role.
I relocated to Vancouver and started working with the students at UBC. In the following years, I was promoted several times, eventually becoming a District Sales Manager for the Canadian Division and leading the UBC team to become the #2 campus in the world, two years in a row.
Southwestern has been part of my life for the last 13 years. During that time I learned more things than I could possibly list in this blog post, so I’ll share just a few of the big ones:
- Selling is a NOT a natural skill, it’s a learned and VERY ESSENTIAL skill – it does not matter what career path you are going to take, I guarantee you will have to make a sale to someone at some point. At the very least, it will be selling yourself to your future employer. Learning the ability to sell effectively, is learning the ability to communicate effectively, and is a skill most students don’t get with their degree.
- A degree is important, but it doesn’t matter what it is – when I graduated university, I received a BA in Statistics. This doesn’t surprise many who know me well as they know I work well with numbers, but I don’t remember a thing from my university degree, and I likely won’t do anything statistics related in my career. I have a degree though, and that alone opens up a lot of doors in today’s world. I encourage anyone I talk to that post-secondary education is important. Whether it’s a degree or a diploma program, do something at least, and study what you enjoy learning about. Make sure though, to spend the time during your school years and summers to gain the soft skills necessary to compete in today’s marketplace.
- Enjoy your youth while you can – I’ve met so many students over the years who can’t wait to finish university and start working. However, many of them don’t even know the type of job they want or have the skills needed to get those positions. My question to them has always been, “What’s the rush?” If most people are going to graduate at 22 or 23 and work until they’re 60 or 65, what difference does it make to spend another year or two in school if it means you’re graduating with more life experience? During my 11 summers of selling books and meeting over 25,000 families, I heard from so many parents who would love to spend a day or two back in university if they could, and escape the everyday pressures of being an adult with a career and family to care for. While you’re a student you have so few responsibilities compared to when you start a family and career, so take the time while you’re young to get the most out of it.
Of course you don’t have to participate in the Southwestern Advantage Internship to learn these things, but in my experience, my time with Southwestern definitely expedited the learning process.
I started Southwestern in 1999 as a way to get a leg up over my peers. I knew it was going to be a challenge and I was a little scared, but I was excited about the opportunities ahead. I never thought I’d spend 13 years there, but I’m so glad I did. What I’ve learned during that time goes far beyond just selling books and managing other students to do the same. In addition to the many friends I’ve made, I was also fortunate to meet my wife, Charlotte. To this day, many of our closest friends come from “the bookfield.”
This year, after extensive thought and deliberation, Charlotte and I decided to move on from Southwestern. We are currently traveling the world for 8 months with nothing but a backpack each, and an iPad. Our experience with Southwestern has given us the time, flexibility, desire, and financial ability to partake in such a trip. In fact, it was the decision for me to sell books one more time this past summer that provided the funds necessary for this trip. Thankfully, I’m a much better communicator than I was my 1st summer!
Now, as we are 2 months into our travels, we’ve had a chance to see how much our experience with Southwestern has come to benefit us. Having years of sales experience, we’ve also had the pleasure of dealing with locals in markets and observing the good and bad sales techniques that are used.
Everyone has asked me recently what I’m going to do now that I’m no longer with Southwestern. In short, I don’t know for sure, but I’m also not concerned. Right now, I’m focused on making the most of our time as we travel around the world, an opportunity we worked hard for over the last few years. When this journey comes to an end, we’ll start a new one with a new career and a family, and when that time comes, I know the skills I’ve learned over the last 13 years will help me get to where I want to go.